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A tech lover’s dare to ditch your smartphone for a day

Delfeayo Marsalis, a member of the renowned musical Marsalis family of New Orleans, has always embraced technology in his career as a jazz trombonist and producer.

Working with director Spike Lee three decades ago, he was among the early users of Dolby sound in films. In the 1990s, he was a pioneer using ProTools software for digital recordings, now the industry standard. "I like to be in the vanguard of technology," he says.

But as he looks at technology on the home front, he is disturbed by what he is seeing. He remembers as a kid mixing with his relatives at family gatherings and learning patience as the children listened to adults converse. These days, everyone is on their mobiles.

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When his children and their cousins get together, they are as likely to be on their smartphones, texting friends and checking items on the Internet, as they are relating to their relatives. He sees one nephew three days a year, and when the youngster visits, he is constantly on his cellphone with friends back in Baltimore.

And it's not just others falling into this trap: "I'm like most other people: When I have a smartphone on me, I find myself checking it frequently."

These thoughts led Mr. Marsalis a few years ago to propose a "No Cell Phone Day" when he was planning an outing with his daughter. She was ecstatic, calling friends and telling them they were going to have "a no-cell-a-phone day," he says, imitating her with a rich New Orleans drawl.

It was a lovely day. They connected better, as each focused on each other. And as he continued the practice, he decided to write a children's book, No Cell Phone Day, in which a tech-obsessed father tries the same approach and finds it rewarding. You can catch him on YouTube reading from the book – relishing the no-cell-a-phone line inserted in it – and playing his trombone before an audience of excited parents and children at the Toledo Museum of Art.

It's a children's story, but beyond its pages, he has a message for adults:

Consider your own No Cell Phone Day. Try a day with your family in which everyone abandons their electronic security blanket. When asked if we should be doing it once a week or once a month, he replied, "Start with once a year." He believes when you try it you'll want to embrace the concept more frequently.

Try play dates without cellphones. When Mr. Marsalis takes his now-13-year-old daughter and her cousins out for a day at the mall, followed by a movie and dinner, he makes a deal with them to leave their phones at home. Since they're all together on those occasions, he doesn't consider it a safety concern and wants to avoid them spending the time ignoring each other. He is saddened by the folks he sees in the movie theatre checking their Facebook accounts in mid-show. At first, the visiting young relatives were resistant: "They hated the idea, but that's the breaks. We ended up having a good time."

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Set aside time at home to be free of devices. It has been difficult with that nephew from Baltimore, who would almost not come rather than be torn from his connection to friends back home. But it's working out. And over time, Mr. Marsalis believes he's building patience in all the youngsters, who can't access messages from friends and the latest news immediately.

Make dinner time a cell-free time. He travels a lot and has an erratic schedule, so is not always home for dinner. But when he is with family, he likes to treat dinner time as sacred, a chance to enjoy the food and each other's company, not the latest text messages from others. So they close the door to the outside world for this interval.

Play "What do I know without my cellphone?" We store so much information on our phones that he believes we aren't properly engaging our memory. Research suggests that children's short-term memory is already suffering. There was a time when we used to remember 10 or 20 phone numbers. Now we don't know anybody's. So he suggests exercising your brain with trivia, math and other cognitive games to sharpen the mind.

Don't be afraid to be bored: He rails at our lust for excitement. He used to tape tennis matches and, when reviewing those from a few decades ago, he noted the commercials were promoting shows that lacked the wham-bang action of today's television stalwarts. News, he worries, is also filled with accidents and mayhem. There's a societal thirst for sensationalism. "We don't need 100-per-cent excitement all the time," he counters.

So he slides his trombone and pushes his book at every opportunity, hoping perhaps a movement might be kindled to make no cellphones a more common feature of family daily life.

Harvey Schachter is a Battersea, Ont.-based writer specializing in management issues. He writes Monday Morning Manager and management book reviews for the print edition of Report on Business and an online work-life column Balance. E-mail Harvey Schachter

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About the Author
Management columnist

Harvey Schachter is a Kingston, Ont.-based writer specializing in management issues. He writes Monday Morning Manager and management book reviews for the print edition of Report on Business and an online column, Power Points. More

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